May 25

Twenty-Five Years of the Jungle

“We wanted to do something that was significant for Omaha, but also significant nationally and internationally,” says Dr. Lee G. Simmons (“Doc”), former director of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium and current chairman of the Omaha Zoo Foundation, of the plan to put a jungle in the middle of the heartland.

This year, as the Lied Jungle celebrates its 25th anniversary, it is clear that Doc’s vision for achieving local, national and international significance has succeeded beyond even his wildest dreams. It is still one of the world’s largest indoor jungles (it was the largest for many years after it opened), and one of the reasons why our zoo is consistently ranked among the world’s best.

“It was a watershed moment when the jungle opened,” Doc says. “Our membership more than doubled that year, and, because it was so successful, it has made it easier to raise the funds for the other exhibits and animal facilities we’ve done since. We finished on-time and on-budget, and it set the standard. The community, our board, and the donors expect that from us now.”

“At around the same time, the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. was also building an indoor jungle, about a third the size of ours.” Doc continued. “They bought perfectly symmetrical plants from greenhouses and growers and spent $2.5 million.” With an eye toward staying on budget, Doc and his team tapped into their creativity. To forest the jungle, they drove down to southern Florida and cruised the back roads, convincing growers to sell them their lightning- and wind-damaged trees. Then, the zookeepers dug the trees up and brought them back to Omaha themselves. “We were able to populate the space with trees for $250 thousand,” he says.

The kicker is, our jungle trees were already tall on opening day, as opposed to the nursery stock at the D.C. jungle, and they looked more natural, “Trees in a jungle have branches broken off and they've been windblown,” Doc notes drily.

Keeping the jungle as natural as possible was a top design priority. “I’ve been to tropical forests in Hawaii, and they even smell like the Lied Jungle,” says jungle supervisor Teresa Shepard of the building’s earthy ambiance. “It’s one of the first places that mixed species of tapirs with langurs with otters with gibbons with free flight birds and bats – just like it happens in the actual jungle.”

“Doc never liked a rectangular building because a square corner isn’t something that happens in nature, says John Armknecht of ASD Stanley J. How Architects, who designed the building. “The jungle is an elongated octagon.”

Armknecht recalls that his team, the zoo and Kiewit collaborated extensively to solve some of the design challenges that came up (including a 10,000-gallon “toilet tank” to periodically flush the indoor river of waste from its resident pigmy hippos), but they also learned a lot from other zoos. “Learning what got others into the soup was more important than learning what to do,” Doc says of their discovery visits to other zoos around the world.

Not that they took everyone’s advice. When determining the structure of the building, Armknecht says they decided that regular steel would rust, due to the jungle’s humidity. Stainless steel was cost-prohibitive, so they chose to use galvanized steel for the roof frame (which, to keep costs down even more, they were able to have treated in Omaha, thanks to a generous favor from Valmont Industries, rather than shipped in). “An engineer from Biosphere 2 came and toured the jungle, and he kept saying we were making a big mistake in not using stainless, and that our steel was going to rust. I think he got on Doc’s nerves a little,” says Armknecht with a laugh. “The zoo takes good care of what they have and it’s never been a problem. The jungle roof has never had a problem with rust… now, I did visit Biosphere 2 a few years ago and noticed a few rust spots.”

The Lied Jungle recently got a brand new roof, and due to UV- and hail-damage, the cost was covered by insurance. Shepard says that future improvements will include a new handrail throughout the exhibit, and, she hopes, enhanced educational components.

“The jungle is a giant classroom, in which you can have a lot of really great experiences and fun," Doc says. "From the standpoint of talking to people about conservation -- the jungle makes it real.”

For people who still believe that Omaha is a strange place for an indoor rainforest, Doc tells them that it is precisely because it is Omaha that they were able to build it here. “We have the one of the world’s best jungles, but the world’s very best donors and supporters. We want everyone in the community to feel like they own a piece of it.”